Sfumato

Next in this series of blog posts is a strange one: Sfumato. I’m blogging about how each of the seven principles in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, by Michael J. Gelb, relates to fiction writing. Today I grapple with the fourth principle, Sfumato, a word that means “going up in smoke.”

Gelb’s definition of Sfumato is “a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.” Although most people prefer knowledge, predictability, and clarity, Gelb contends that Leonardo did not shy away from the gray areas, the question marks, the mysterious, and the absurd.

SfumatoDa Vinci painted beautiful things, but also made many drawings of ‘grotesques’ or ugly human faces. His most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, contains mystery after mystery, including the anonymity of its model. Gelb notes that we discern human mood from the corners of the eyes and mouth, but in the Mona Lisa, Leonardo obscured these areas in shadow, deliberately leaving them vague so we are left to wonder whether she smiles or not.

Is Sfumato important for a fiction writer? First, let’s define each of its three aspects:

  • Ambiguity: something that can be understood in more than one way, allowing for more than one interpretation.
  • Paradox: a statement or proposition that, despite apparently sound reasoning, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, illogical, or self-contradictory.
  • Uncertainty: A state of having limited knowledge where it is difficult to choose between two or more alternatives.

Writers make use of ambiguity through symbolism, where one thing may represent something else. Metaphors and similes prove useful to ways to compare the unfamiliar to the familiar, but also leave the story open to interpretation. Often the greatest works of literature contain enough ambiguity to allow generations of critics to argue over meanings.

As for paradox, a writer may employ it for humorous effect, as in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” where a young man thinks he can end his apprenticeship with a band of pirates when he is twenty-one years old, but since he was born on February 29, he’s really only a bit over four. Even when a writer uses paradox in a serious way, it can heighten reader enjoyment by giving the reader something to puzzle over and think about.

Uncertainty is at the center of fiction writing, and comes into play in three levels—the character, the reader, and the writer. Fiction must have conflict, and often it can be an internal conflict for the main character. To heighten the drama of the conflict, it’s necessary to force the character to make a difficult decision. The protagonist’s uncertainty is what makes readers keep on reading.

You must create uncertainty in the mind of the reader as well. If the reader knows what’s coming next, there’s no point in continuing with the story.

How does uncertainty apply to the writer? I believe this has to do with the tone of the prose. A writer should have something to say, and have a level of confidence in the point she or he is trying to make. I didn’t say ‘certainty;’ I said ‘a level of confidence.’ If you believe you possess the ultimate truths of the universe, the universe will prove you wrong. No reader likes a know-it-all, so I urge authors to advance ideas for consideration, not in a manner that closes the door to criticism.

That’s Sfumato. Now, if you find yourself striding with confidence into areas of smoke, of fog, of murkiness and mystery; if you come to enjoy being ambiguously, paradoxically uncertain, you have no one to blame except Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb, and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 20, 2015Permalink

Dumped in the Middle of the Road

You’re reading along down the story highway, racing through action scenes, taking the dialogue curves at a good clip, the wind of the story’s world in your hair. All of a sudden, a truck up ahead upends its load and a pile of text pours onto the pavement, right in your path.

You’ve been stalled by an infodump.

Infodump

You come to a stop to decide what to do. You could plow right through it at slow speed, but you hate that. You could drive around, avoiding it entirely, but some of that text might be necessary to understand the story. If you’re in an angry mood, you could forget the whole book and move on.

An Infodump is one of the Turkey City Lexicon terms. It refers to a passage of text used to explain things and give background information to the reader. It can be one paragraph, or go on for several pages. It’s most common in science fiction and fantasy, where the story’s world is unlike our own, and you need to immerse the reader in it.

From a writer’s perspective, it seems so necessary to convey that information. The reader needs to understand certain things so later events in the story make sense. Many of the great writers of the past used infodumps; Herman Melville spent whole chapters that way, and it hasn’t hurt his sales. Oh, perhaps the writer could think of clever ways to work the information into the story, but who has time for that?

Better make time, you Twenty-First Century Writer, because readers these days don’t want to slow down and plow through your dump.

Here are some techniques:

  1. Delete it. What does that info add to your story, anyway? Do readers really need to know it? Are you dumping that load to help reads understand, or to show off your research or add credibility? If you can delete it, do so. If you can delete most of it, do that, and use other techniques to convey the rest.
  1. Work it into dialogue. Readers speed through your characters’ dialogue pretty fast, so inserting some of your infodump into their speech is one way to avoid slowing readers down. Caution: there’s danger here. You must not swerve into the As You Know, Bob lane. Make sure the dialogue is realistic as well as explanatory.
  1. Work it into the action. By ‘action’ I don’t necessarily mean fight scenes or car chases, but any passages where characters are doing things, moving about, or actively interacting with their environment or each other. It’s characterized by action verbs. It can be interspersed with dialogue, and often serves as a ‘dialogue tag,’ letting the reader know which character is speaking.
  1. Make it entertaining. If you can turn those smelly tons of interfering text into pure, golden fun, readers will actually enjoy the interruption. By ‘entertaining,’ I don’t necessarily mean funny, but humor is a great way to accomplish this, if you can pull it off. This method calls for considerable creativity and skill.
  1. Make it short. As a last resort, keep the infodump, but reduce its length. Readers may forgive a short, explanatory passage here and there.

I struggle with infodumps in my fiction, but it’s important to eliminate them where possible. Dump trucks are fine in real life, but when they drop their load in the middle of your story’s road, it really ticks off your readers. Not good.

Doing my part to beautify the nation’s literary highways and byways, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Keep Up the Pacing

Today we’ll tread through the topic of pacing in fiction. If you’d like readers to maintain interest in your stories, you might want to step along with me.

PacingThe term ‘pacing’ refers to how fast the reader is reading, and the speed at which the story’s events take place. A good writer not only controls the pace of reading, but also varies that pace throughout the story. Fast-paced scenes are followed by slow-paced ones, and then another fast scene, etc. Jamming too many fast scenes together leaves a reader overwhelmed and lessens each scene’s impact. Slow scenes that are too long or not separated by a fast intermediate scene can bore the reader.

Even within a scene, some pacing should occur. There will be slightly fast moments in a slow scene and slightly slow moments in a fast one. Pacing relates to rhythm, and it’s important to keep varying it.

            Fast

Use a fast pace for action-packed portions of the story. Examples of emotions felt by characters in these scenes are anger, fear, energy, excitement, joy, and surprise.

Create a fast pace with short sentences and short paragraphs. Keep the writing plain, free of modifiers. Use brief and impactful verbs. There should be more dialogue, and it should be snappy. Some sentence fragments.

In other words, you’re maximizing the “white space.”

            Slow

A slower pace allows the reader to catch her breath and more fully absorb what happened in the faster scenes. A relaxed tempo serves to emphasize important points, let characters to refresh and recharge after action sequences, reveal character backgrounds and motivations, and permit characters to react and reflect on moments of high drama as well as to plan for future events.

The slow paced sequences allow better expression of these character emotions: anger, fear, astonishment, awe, and disbelief. Yes, anger and fear can belong in both the fast and slow parts.

To slow down the pace, stay with more narrative and less dialogue, make use of longer sentences, and embellish the prose with descriptions. Don’t overdo any of those, however; your aim is to keep the reader interested, not bore him.

Alternating

As mentioned, my advice is to alternate the fast and slow sections. Also alternate fast and slow paragraphs, and sentences within a paragraph. Such variation avoids monotony and keeps the reader intrigued enough to stay with your story.

This isn’t the only fine blog post about pacing. You can find others here, here, here, and here.  Thanks for striding along with—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

As you plan your fiction stories, one important consideration is figuring out how they will be told. In other words, who is the narrator? You have several choices, each with benefits and drawbacks.

Narrative VoiceI’ve discussed Point of View (POV) before, but this is slightly different. Today I’m talking about Narrative Voice. Wikipedia’s article on Narrative Mode discusses POV and Narrative Voice as separate items.

You might invent your own new type of Narrative Voice, but for now, the main categories are Stream-of-Consciousness, Character Voice, Epistolary, and various Third Person voices.

  • Stream of Consciousness. You’re in my mind as I tell this, getting every little thought. Some connected, some not (doesn’t matter), even partial. What I’m conveying is the scattered, haphazard/fleeting nature of a human mind’s thoughts as they carom-collide-cascade around inside a skull. The advantage (good news!) is getting that intense/inside/intimate sense of one person’s—a character, or outside narrator (you choose)—perspective on the story’s events. A downside-disadvantage-drawback-(damn!) is that it can be hard to write, hard to read, hard, hard, hard to pull off well.
  • Character Voice.  Yeah, I’m a character, but the author’s makin’ me do double duty by also tellin’ the story. You readers’ll see things through my eyes, and I’ll let you know exactly what I think about everyone else. I’m a main character, but the author coulda picked one of them spear carriers. My author also picked first person, but he mighta picked third person instead. By the way, you can trust me. But some o’ these other character voice narrators in other stories? They lie. They’re what you call ‘unreliable voice narrators’ and you gotta sort out the truth yourself. Another type you might come across is the ‘naive narrator.’ Sometimes ya get these kids tellin’ the story, or worse is, some adult whose cheese ain’t sittin’ square on top of his cracker, if you know what I mean. With Character Voice, you’re gonna feel like you’re right with me, part of the action. Still, even I can’t really be everywhere and see everything, so pick your narrator character carefully.
  •  Epistolary VoiceEpistolary
  • Third-Person Subjective. Jane knew her author was using her to tell his story, and she secretly resented it. All the story’s actions got to the reader through her eyes and other senses. Worse, the author was just telling the reader many of her innermost thoughts. In her story’s case, the author used Third Person Subjective – Limited in that he never strayed from Jane’s mind. She wished he had chosen Third Person Subjective – Omniscient instead, and told the story by switching into other characters’ minds every so often. It certainly didn’t help matters that this was known as the most popular and currently most common type of narration.
  • Third Person Objective. James saw what his author was doing. He was narrating the story by describing what James sensed, but only what James sensed. No feelings or thoughts were involved at all. James drove past a sign that said this method maintained a neutral, unbiased narrative, similar to the style used by news reporters.   James said, “This technique helps the reader appreciate how reliable the narrator is, but some readers may miss the inner emotions.”
  • Third Person Omniscient. As the sun rose, no one in the tiny town suspected their story was being told by an omniscient narrator. The narrator knew everything about everyone, including each person’s secret desires, hopes, and wishes. Alone in her ranch style home, Jane suspected that this once-popular technique would work well for epic stories with many characters and widely-dispersed action. But as James drove by Jane’s house, he wondered if the technique could be disorienting to readers, or introduce too much distance between story and reader.

There you have the various types of narrative voice. For your story, make your choice based on your experience with each technique, as well as what’s best for the story. For this blog post, your narrator has, of course, been—

Poseidon’s Scribe